The Old Meets the New

In Stories in Real Time (HiPNOTIC Records), clarinetist Darryl Harper ’90 balances tradition with the avant-jazz scene.

Reviewed by Bruce Diehl


[Jazz]  The chance to listen to one of Darryl Harper’s CDs affords this listener a look back and a look at the current. In Harper’s deep, rich tone we encounter the history and tradition of the clarinet as is heard in the works of Sidney Bechet, Jimmy Hamilton and Jimmy Guifre. Yet Harper maintains a musical language that embraces many traditions while striving for the newer harmonic vocabularies and freedoms found in the avant-jazz scene.

Stories in Real Time embodies Harper’s efforts at managing this balance. Looking ahead, we hear compositions by a wide array of composers, many affiliated with Boston’s storied New England Conservatory. It is fascinating to hear how Harper uses the varied material to express his own musical values and streams of thought. The care he uses in their presentation shows the great depth of understanding he created while working with the composers. Harper chooses to overlay his own voice with the addition of clarinetists Alex Spiegelman, Kenny Paxton and Brian Landrus (bass clarinet). This is not the usual ensemble instrumentation, and Harper has found wonderful means to craft the timbres to represent his concept.

The clarinets form a provocative relationship in the opening tracks, a multi-movement work with music and lyrics by Harper himself. Vocalist Marianne Solivan delivers the ideal emotional concepts: she is sultry, simple, strong and reserved. The clarinet ensemble balances well with Solivan’s voice, providing excellent support and occasional interspersions designed to highlight the lyric or give momentum into the next segment. The rhythm section provides support throughout, with an excellent drum solo by Harry “Butch” Reed at the start of the sixth movement.

Pianist Lefteris Kordis, another New England Conservatory connection, shines in Harper’s other compositional offering, “Tore Up,” which is the CD’s most interesting track. This modern-looking piece offers homage to John Coltrane in design. One can envision the efforts of the classic quartet (Coltrane, Tyner, Garrison, Jones) as Harper’s clarinet weaves in, out and around the sparse and pointed harmonies, meeting the aggressive style of Kordis head-on.

Perhaps the overall message of tradition meeting the present is best embodied by the track “Tilant, Zare, Nege (Ethiopa: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow),” in which composer Roland Davis strives to show the listener that Ethiopia is still a force in African culture despite its tumultuous famines of the last few decades. From the ominous opening, a tribal feeling is established, and the polyphonic nature of conversing clarinets mingle with solo or unison voices to closely resemble the call-and-response effect common to much of African music. Handclaps punctuate the dance-like music, and Harper’s solo voice ushers in the Nege (tomorrow) segment. 

Harper returned to Amherst as a Copeland Fellow in 2006-07 and has made two guest soloist appearances with the Amherst College Jazz Ensemble. He holds advanced degrees from Rutgers University and the New England Conservatory. He’s performed with such musicians as Freddie Bryant ’87, Wynton Marsalis, Regina Carter, Billy Taylor, Dave Holland and Uri Caine.

He has two other albums to his credit, both done as part of his group The Onus. The ensemble on those efforts is primarily a trio, so the enlargement to a septet-plus-voice on Stories in Real Time represents a growth, a chance to explore his concepts with the interaction of more musicians. He no doubt finds this a fertile process important to his increasing development in melodic vocabulary, harmonic concepts and musical form. Any time an audience can have this intimate glimpse of an artist’s personal growth, it is worth a careful listen. As stated by a favorite poet of Harper, Yusef Komunyakaa, “you gotta get into it so deep,” which is apt advice for this recording.

Diehl is senior lecturer in music and director of jazz performance at Amherst.